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Freud's Karamzov



Fyodor Dostoevsky’s (1821 – 1881) Existentialist writings are universally renown for their convincing ability to portray characters of a complex psychological nature. It is, therefore, no wonder, then, that in Sigmund Freud’s (1856-1939) 1929 article ‘Dostoevsky and Parricide,’ the founder of psychoanalysis proclaims “‘The Brothers Karamazov’ is the most magnificent novel ever written.” Indeed, it is in this final masterpiece by Dostoevsky that the author successfully culminates the entire breadth of his talent by firmly establishing his mature style. Despite Freud’s admiration, however, he often criticizes Dostoevsky and the fact that he threw away “the chance of becoming a great teacher and liberator of humanity and made himself one with their jailors.” Overall though, Freud connects with ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ primarily because of the novel’s unsurpassed psychological insight, its reinforcement of the Oedipus Complex and, in spite of Freud’s skepticism of free will that was essential for Dostoevsky’s Christianity, both thinkers reluctantly liberate the individual from predestination through their introspective conclusions on man’s conflicted nature.

There can be no doubt, however, that the primary reason for Freud’s undying praise of ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ lies within the novel’s ability to convincingly illustrate Freud’s principal theory of the Oedipus Complex. Freud notes “It can scarcely be owing to chance that three of the masterpieces of the literature of all time the ‘Oedipus Rex’ of Sophocles, Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ and Dostoevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ should all deal with the same subject, parricide. In all three, moreover, the motive for deed, sexual rivalry for a women, is laid bare.” Indeed, father figures are ubiquitous throughout the entire novel and Fyodor Pavlovich, inappropriately enough, even goes as far to lay out explicit details to his sons of the bedroom escapades he had with their mother, Sophia. Rebellion against paternal authority is also aptly evident throughout the novel. Ivan, alone, is guilty of physically assaulting his biological father, his adopted father, and even Ilyusha’s father. The most obvious allusion to the Oedipus Complex, however, lies within Dmitri’s rivalry with his father, Fyodor, for the beautiful Grushenka, as well as in the following accusations that Dmitri even murdered his own father.

While Fyodor Pavlovich’s bastard son, Smerdyakov, is the one physically responsible for the death of the patriarch, all sons are universally implicated, in some way or another, of the heinous crime. For one, Dmitri had already made explicit plans to kill the unpopular father. It was, also, only through Ivan’s cold logic that Smerdyakov was even able to convince himself to commit the crime in the first place. In fact, Ivan suffers a complete psychological breakdown when he realizes his direct involvement in the final demise of their father. Freud was sure to point out “It is a matter of indifference who actually committed the crime; psychology is only concerned to know who desired it emotionally and who welcomed it when it was done.” As an entity both sidelined and unacknowledged, Smerdyakov represents the unconscious force that only fulfilled the primal desire to murder the father. In front of an entire judicial courtroom, the intellectual Ivan elucidates the basic fact “everyone wants his father dead. Viper devours viper… If there were no parricide, they’d all get angry and go home in a foul temper.” Even the righteous Alyosha is guilty through negligence of his family’s precarious position but also, as a devout Christian, he has to carry the burden of the other’s sins as well.

In ‘Dostoevsky and Parricide,’ Freud went far beyond a mere analysis of his favorite book to analyze Dostoevsky, the man himself, so as to attain a more comprehensive understanding of the creative source behind the beloved masterpiece. Dostoevsky’s fervent conviction that suffering is the necessary pathway to salvation is highly indicative of the writer’s own deep-seated masochism. In ‘Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality,’ Freud defines masochism as a perverse state in which “satisfaction is conditional upon suffering physical or mental pain.” As both Dostoevsky and Freud knew, all to well, it is a bewildering paradox that one can obtain both pleasure and pain, simultaneously, from the same cause. The oxymoron questions causality itself and endows the observer with a brief glimpse into the abysmal complexity of the human mind. It is the overall suffering of innocent children, however, which is at the root of Ivan’s inability to reconcile a benevolent God within an apparently indifferent world of pain. Alyosha simply responds to Ivan’s questions of faith by murmuring “I want to suffer, too.” The desire to suffer remains in accordance with Existentialist doctrine that asserts happiness is not, necessarily, a goal worthy of aspiration because, in reality, happiness is only a form of stagnant contentment. The Christian Kierkegaard, one of the forefathers of Existentialism, swore if God gave him the choice between, on the one hand, a life of ease and, on the other hand, a life of continuous struggle, he would promptly choose the enriching difficulties of the latter. Indeed, it is a curious fact that the central object of Kierkegaard’s, Dostoevsky’s, and Alyosha’s fanatical Christianity is the cross, which is, by all means, a torture device to enhance suffering.


Here, too, in Dostoevsky’s devout Christianity we see, yet another, father and son relationship which Freud explicates more thoroughly in his 1913 essay ‘Totem and Taboo.’ Freud insists there is “no doubt that in the Christian myth the original sin was one against God the Father” and even goes as far to state that Christ “himself became God, beside, or, more correctly, in place of, the father. A son-religion displaced the father-religion. As a sign of this substitution the ancient totem meal was revived in the form of communion, in which the company of brothers consumed the flesh and blood of the son – no longer the father.” ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ is not only reminiscent of Christ’s life but of also Christ’s own parable of the prodigal son who returned home after rejecting his own overbearing father. Freud explains the incessant rebellion perpetuated between the generations is an essential component of natural progression and, earlier on in his career, he had labeled it “the family romance.” It is easy to see how the seminal ideas of paternal rebellion found in the “family romance” would eventually mature into Freud’s more complicated theory of the Oedipus Complex. Perhaps the pagan Oedipal myth attains it most eloquent Christian analogy within the very opening lines of ‘The Brothers Karamazov.’ Later on in the novel, Zosima recites this biblical passage again to Alyosha when he tells him, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” Successful propagation seems to thrive on, and even require, the downfall of the ancestral precedent and, accordingly, it is only through the sacrifice of the prophet Christ that his followers are ‘saved’ and can flourish.

Ivan composes his own story of Christ entitled ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ which he narrates to Alyosha in the chapter of the same name. Freud shows particular admiration for this poem, claiming it as “one of the peaks in literature of the world,” which “can hardly be valued too highly.” Basically, in Ivan’s fictitious poem, the second-coming of Christ is not fully welcomed when the messiah returns to earth during the sixteenth-century Spanish Inquisition. The Grand Inquisitor, the leader of the Church, feels that the faithful do not need Christ because the Church already provides them with everything they need and, therefore, frees them from any burdensome decisions. The Grand Inquisitor concludes “nothing has ever been more insufferable for man and for human society than freedom!” The statement echoes Existentialism’s chief promoter, Sartre, and his claim that humanity is “condemned to be free” because we are thrown into a world not of our own making, yet we are responsible for every little thing we do. Freedom is irrevocably bound to accountability.

The story of ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ has numerous parallels throughout the novel, especially when Dmitri is imprisoned in the twelfth and final book ‘A Judicial Error.’ It is not completely irrelevant that ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ comes to its climax in a courtroom scene that takes great pains to publicly detail the deepest recesses of the mind. Consequently, Dostoevsky brings his customary descriptive narration of the interior to the forefront of the entire story. In fact, an entire chapter is referred to as ‘Psychology at Full Steam.’ The prosecutor and defense attorney are both talented psychologists and bend psychology to justify each of their opposing arguments. Here, Dostoevsky’s concern with the decision-making process in the individual is clearly laid out for the reader but, at the same time, Dostoevsky also exposes psychology’s unreliability. Freud cannot help but notice “this famous mockery of psychology” and especially the quote that psychology “is a knife that cuts both ways.” In the chapter ‘Confession. In verse,’ the skeptical character of Dmitri clearly recognizes that “man is broad, even too broad” and Dostoevsky, overall, also seems reluctant of the ultimate capabilities of psychology.

Freud should have taken more heed to Dostoevsky’s lead and realized that any attempt to truly comprehend the mind is inherently futile because, in the end, it is always obscured by the unconscious. As a result, Freud’s theories often conflict back and forth between, on the one hand, asserting the existence of the unconscious and, on the other hand, establishing psychoanalysis as a science capable of accounting for every arbitrary thought, in a deterministic fashion. In Freud’s second introductory lecture he strictly states that there are no “occurrences so small that they fail to come within the causal sequence of things” and “Anyone thus breaking away from the determination of natural phenomena, at any single point, has thrown over the whole scientific outlook on the world.” This Enlightenment faith in science, as the ultimate authority, misled Freud not to take full advantage of his remarkable unearthing of the unconscious as the mysterious source of our being, albeit as an inaccessible source. Little did Freud realize that uncertainty, which epitomizes the unconscious, would gone on to define the rest of science in the twentieth-century, as seen in such landmark discoveries as Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, Chaos Theory, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and all of Quantum Theory. Freud’s predicament was much like that of Einstein, who fathered both of the fundamental, yet conflicting, Theories of Relativity and Quantum Physics. In what, today, many experts consider the tragedy of his career, Einstein, too, was reluctant to accept the uncertainty of Quantum Theory, in favor of the precise elegance presented by his first prodigy, the Theory of Relativity. Often perturbed by philosophy’s continual correlation of the mind with mere conscious thought, Freud set out to defuse these traditional notions. Freud’s subsequent work, which implied that there is an integral part of our self that we don’t know of, imploded Descartes’ pillar “cogito ergo sum” (“I think therefore I am”) and, therefore, undermined the very basic foundations of Modern philosophy itself. The ensuing crisis of knowledge resulted in our Postmodern condition.

On this matter, the writings of Dostoevsky are quite successful in emphasizing the inexplicable nature of the human condition. Several decades later, the Existentialists would refer to the random and indifferent facts of life as ‘the absurd.’ Indeed, the scholarly Ivan teaches Alyosha, “The absurd is only too necessary on this earth. The world stands on absurdities.” Accordingly, there is no rhyme, nor reason, for the chance events that constantly bombard an individual throughout life. In ‘The Uncanny,’ Freud explains it is exactly this erratic assault on the senses that conjure up the illusion of the self. He goes on to say that one should always be aware of “all the strivings of the ego which adverse external circumstances have crushed, and all of our suppressed acts of violition, which nourish in us the illusion of Free Will.” Perhaps, by this, Freud seems to think that if people were in complete harmony with the rest of the universe there would be no need to perceive one’s self as unique. The only certainty is uncertainty and, therefore, any probable reliability springs from the stream of consciousness within. Oppressive external assaults on man’s senses always inevitably force him out of the agenda of the universe. However, nothing exists independently and so, therefore, it seems as if any assumption that man exists apart from nature is irrational. This only reinforces Friedrich Schelling’s mantra that man is simply nature which has finally achieved self-realization. Freud notes “the factor of repression enables us, futhermore, to understand Schelling’s definition of the uncanny as something which ought to have remain hidden but has come to light.” The uncanny shatters preconceived notions when a seemingly unique subject is reflected in what it is opposed against. Perhaps, it is this need to establish one’s originality that induces the ominous desire to eradicate one’s forebearer.

In the end, though, the psychological reconstructions that the attorneys present in the climatic scenes of ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ seem plausible enough but, in reality, none of them accurately explain ‘the truth.’ Much like the smooth-talking attorneys, Freud is also guilty of a “judicial error” by conforming his so-called ‘scientific’ explanations according to his liking, despite the actual reality of things. Waves are often perceived but, beneath, there is only an abyss. Freud’s model of a mind conflicted upon itself, however, did enable mankind to finally escape the clutches of determinism in a way that oddly mirrors Dostoevsky’s own personal belief that His internal strife would ultimately grant him His salvation and, therefore, necessitated His Free Will.

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